Tuesday, November 18, 2014

O. Henry Prize Stories 2014--Thumbnail Comments

I have been living with the 2014 Best American Short Stories and the 2014 O. Henry Prize Stories for the past several weeks, and I am sorry to say it has been a lackluster relationship. Of the forty stories in the two collections, I was impressed by very few. I don't know why the stories seem so ordinary this year.
Are the hundreds of stories that the two editors, Laura Furman and Heidi Pitlor, had to choose from really so bland and predictable that these are the "best" they could find?  Were the editors restricted by editorial decisions to make the two collections as bland and "readable" and "accessible" as possible?  Have I read so many stories over the years that I have become crotchety and hard to please? I don't know.
Whatever the reason, here are my thumbnail comments on the twenty stories in the  O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014. I will post my comments on the twenty stories in Best American Short Stories: 2014 next week.

In "The Gun" by Mark Haddon, two young boys—one somewhat passive, one somewhat aggressive--sneak out of the house with a gun and encounter a deer. You can pretty well predict this is going to be an initiation story involving violence, death, and coming of age—although it is never clear why coming of age has to involve violence and death.
Although Stephen Dixon's "Talk" is a story about a man coping with the death of his wife, it is actually a story about point of view, in which Dixon alternates between the man using "I" and "he" to refer to his thoughts and actions. There's also some literary allusions to Gilgamesh, that iconic "oldest literary work." I suppose one could make something of how we "objectify" ourselves, shift outside ourselves to become an "I" observing our self as a "him," but I am not sure the story makes the effort worthwhile.
Tessa Hadley's "Valentine" is about two 15-year-old British girls with breasts—one small, one luscious—whose talk is "rococo with insincerity." Into their lives comes a boy named Valentine with a swaggering walk and a chin like a faun. The narrator, the one with the small breasts, says his proximity "licked" at her "like a flame." I almost stopped reading at that point. And almost stopped again when she says she read Plato about two souls divided at birth and thinks of herself and Valentine. There's some hot hands-in-the-pants sex, a jealous English teacher, some poetry allusions and a bit of a portrait of the artist as a young woman.  All very predictable teeny-silly romance.
Olivia Clare's "Petur" is mainly about "place," in this case a particularly ghostly place in Iceland when the volcano erupts and scatters ash all over everything. It's a mother/son story (she is 61; he is 36)—he gets older and she seems to get younger. There are references to a "land of ash" or "ashland," and being trapped in a volcano. And then she meets a man named Petur. The story exists primarily for the setting of ashland; indeed there would be no story without it.
David Bradley, "You Remember the Pin Mill."  This is a second-person "You remember" story—a phrase which begins most paragraphs. Most of the "you remembers" are about the narrator's childhood living in the country with his grandfather, who says such things as "And they found a beloved country, rich with game and fish and timber…" There's some mother/son conflict, some race issues, some lost father problems; but mainly it is about "remembering," which is all well and good, but does tend to get a bit tedious over and over and over and over again.
Kristin Valdez Quade, "Nemecia" is a better "two young girls" story than Tessa Hadley's.  But I have already posted a blog on this story, which you can find, if you are of a mind, by doing a search here.
Dylan Landis, "Trust."  Still another "two young girls" story, this time a chapter from Landis's Rainey novel. There is also a gun in this story, but the violence so foregrounded in Mark Haddon's story exists here as ominous threat that plays out as a dangerous game. There is kidnapping, intimidation, swaggering, posturing, etc., but since this is a chapter from a novel, you are mainly interested in what shenanigans that rascal Rainey is going to be up to next.
Allison Alsup, "Old Houses" is a sort of ghost story about a killing that took place in one of the houses 30 years ago in this peaceful neighborhood; it haunts the narrator because it is still unsolved. It's a short, lyric story with an evocative tone of mystery and fascination. But about what? Other than the puzzle of how such a thing could have happened here.
Halina Duraj, "Fatherland."  The place is Poland, and the time is that of the Nazi persecution of the Poles.  The story is about memories of growing up in that context.  No tricks of "remembering" as in the David Bradley story—just the marvel at how the father, who suffered the labor camps and the mother who was hit by a truck survived all that and raised a family.
Chanelle Benz, "West of the Known." The interest here is the voice of the 15-year-old Lavinia who tells the story, who moves from saying such things as "disremember" and "brung" to uttering such poetic lines as "The dark of the Texas plain was a solid thing, surrounding, collecting on my face like blue dust." She and her brother rob banks, and she shoots a young teller. It ends in an abandoned stable with a noose thrown over the rafters.
William Trevor, "The Women."  Now finally here is a story with some seriousness.  But I have already written a blog about it, which might interest you. Do a Search over on the right.
Colleen Morrissey, "Good Faith." Snake-handling and religious fervor in mid America in 1919.  The central first-person voice is that of a 20-year old woman who has a momentary faltering of fear and gets bitten. It's primarily a period piece about faith and fundamentalism.
Robert Anthony Siegel, "The Right Imaginary Person." A love story, which, like most love stories, involves one who loves and one who does not.  Here, the lover is a young American man in Japan, who becomes involved with a young Japanese woman who writes. He is relatively straightforward; she is relatively conflicted and complex. The relationship will never work.
Louise Erdrich, "Nero." This is a "I remember" story combined with a bit of doggy violence. It's a more complex story than Joyce Carol Oates' dog story in BASS. The first-person narrator is a 7-year-old girl. The dog's name is "Nero," and he is a mystery of lust and hunger, which echoes the violence and desire that the young girl witnesses in humans as well.  It is all pretty predictable.
Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, "A Golden Light." The extended metaphor of this very short, lyrical story is that when a young woman's father dies, she shuts down her responses to the world—first by being unable to talk, and then having difficulty moving. We don't know how old she is, but the many references to "when she was a child" suggest she is a grown woman, although her thoughts—"I've misplaced my ears, she thought, and tried to remember if she had put them on that morning or had simply gone out without them"—suggest a child's response.  This autistic withdrawal—a sort of "Sleeping Beauty" syndrome"—suddenly ends one evening—"the magic hour" of sundown—when her room is bathed in a mysterious flickering light—which turns out to be a child next door with a mirror.  A story about the reaction to grief. For a more powerful one, read Chekhov's "Misery" or Mansfield's "The Fly." This one is too easy and too predictable it seems to me.
Chinelo Okparanta, "Fairness"—Another obvious metaphor, this time of young African women bleaching their skin to become "fair," for all the young women want to look like the models in Cosmopolitan. One of the young women uses the ordinary household bleach, with painful results. The social commentary is underlined at the end when the young first-person narrator is envious of her sister's burned skin, because beneath the scabs she is pinkish and thus has wound up with fairness after all, "if only for a while."  Social message, too easy.
Kristen Iskandrian, "The Inheritors." The narrator of the story volunteers to work in a thrift shop and meets another woman who interests her.  And it is the nature of this interest that constitutes the reader's interest in the story.  If I were still teaching, my students would think this is a story about latent homosexuality (whatever that is).  But it is not as "simple" as that;  the narrator's attraction to the other woman is not merely sexual or merely "romantic," but something else. The narrator says the woman reminds her of a painting she remembers from her childhood of a woman waiting for a train.  Since her face is not seen in the painting, the narrator is fascinated by the painting. The narrator says she wants to "unravel" the woman she has met, find a loose thread and pull at it. I think this story has something to do with the mystery of relationships between women, and because I  think I understand it only inchoately, this is one of my favorite stories in the O. Henry  collection this year. This is James Lasdun's favorite story also. I would like to think that is because he is the best short-story writer of the three judges this year.
Michael Parker, "Deep Eddy."  This is a "short short"—only a couple of pages long and therefore by necessity lyrical, compressed, suggestive, and perhaps a bit pretentious. A couple go park at a legendary lover's rendezvous after seeing the Meryl Streep movie of a dingo dog carrying off a baby. The "piece" ends with a montage image of swirling water to suggest the mystery of love and sex. It's carefully done, as such small things must be, but not particularly poetically profound, as such things should be.
Maura Stanton, "Oh Shenandoah"—The gimmick is that a woman and a man with whom she is involved search through Venice--that romantic city of old, valuable, artsy things—for a toilet seat for her apartment. You realize pretty quickly that the story's human plot/theme is the woman's gradual discovery that the man, Hugo, is not only a pretty nice guy, but also a real romantic in a corny ordinary way.  All wired together in a predictable, old-fashioned Collier's fashion.
Laura van den Berg, "Opa-Locka."  This is judge Joan Silber's favorite story, and I'll be darned if I know why.  Silber says what she likes about it is that kept surprising her, that it gave her great pleasure to follow the story down several different paths.  But I don't see any different paths, except the most obvious kind of plot paths in this story of two sisters who play detective, all the while trying to come to terms with the relatively simple mystery of their father. Silber says it is deceptively skilled. If so, it deceived me.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories 2014--Part II

In my last post, I commented on the four most frequently-cited "sources" of stories in the 2014 BASS and O. Henry. Here are a few others:

"Ripped From the Headlines"
T. C. Boyle, always the consummate professional writer, usually seems quite "deliberate" in constructing his stories from material "ripped from the headlines."  He says his story "The Night of the Satellite"(BASS) is about his awareness of our increasingly cluttered sky and is built around his common structural device of slamming two different scenarios together to see what will result. For a professional writer like Boyle the job is to "make a story," and Boyle makes them out of whatever strikes him, often news items ripped from the headlines (or snipped from the back pages.)
Stories sometimes come from something the author has read or seen on television or the Internet. Colleen Morrissey says her story "Good Faith," (O. Henry) began with her watching a BBC documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church whose hateful anti-gay, anti-Semitic rhetoric she says holds a "train-wreck fascination." She felt there was an uneasiness in the young people  about what they were saying. She coincidentally read two pieces about snake-handling and began thinking about how such an act was both empowering and self-hating.  She says what she wanted to capture in the story was the tension between power and surrender.
Poetic Rhythm
Benjamin Nugent's story "God" (BASS) began with a poem written by one of his creative writing students in which a guy prematurely ejaculated while having sex with her.  When he told his fraternity brothers about the poem, they started calling her God. Nugent says one day the first sentence of the story came to him and he liked the sound of its iambic pentameter rhythm.
This notion of stories beginning with a rhythm is a fairly common idea.  Most recently, I ran across it in the Nov. 2, 2014 Los Angeles Times review/interview with Denis Johnson.  Johnson says: "When I write, I don't think in terms of themes—or think in any terms, really.  I'm making what T.S. Eliot called 'quasi-musical' decisions I'm just improvising and adapting, and in that case I suspect the story's course reflects the process of trying to make it…. I get in a teacup and start paddling across the little pond and say 'In seven weeks, I'll land on Mars.' Five years later I'm still going in circles.  When I reach the shore in spitting distance of where I started, it's a colossal triumph."
The T. S. Eliot citation is from a letter to critic Cleanth Brooks, T.S. Eliot observed: "Reading your essay made me feel, for instance, that I had been much more ingenious than I had been aware of, because the conscious problems with which one is concerned in the actual writing are more those of a quasi-musical nature, in the arrangement of metric and pattern, than of a conscious exposition of ideas."
Lauren Goff says that a story arrives for her either as a flash or as a slow "underground confluence of separate fixations. She says "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners"(BASS) is of the latter type.  She says that fiction writers should read poetry as often as they read fiction and that this story springs from reading John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7" every morning. The first line of the poem gave her the title of her story.
Although Karen Russell has not been at the writing business as long as T. C. Boyle has, she also is unashamed about creating stories out of "what if" ideas ripped from her reading.  She says she sometimes thinks it is liberating to commit to a premise that seems "too goofy to work." "Madame Bovary's Greyhound" (BASS), a story about falling out of love, uses the point of view of the dog belonging Flaubert's fictional character.  It is a gimmick, a bit of fun, that allows Russell to pay homage to Flaubert by echoing some of his meticulous language and to upend the usual assumption about a dog's complete devotion by having this dog abandon his famous fictional owner.
Joshua Ferris says he wrote his story "The Breeze" (BASS) entirely on his iPhone.  He says he is not sure why, that maybe he just finds the pain of this laborious process fitting. "But the real answer is this," he says, "I wish I could tell you why I write at all."
Sometimes stories are experiments with technique.  Stephen Dixon ("Talk," O. Henry) says his story came to him when he was sitting on a bench in front of the Episcopal church across the street from his house with a copy of Gilgamesh he was planning to read. He came up with the first line of "Talk," and wrote it as an experiment in shifting point of view from first person to third person.
Beginning with a Genre
Some stories begin with a genre.  Chanelle Benz ("West of the Known," O. Henry) says she originally wanted to write a "literary western," but after introducing some of the characters, she knew she had "blood on the page," a saying she says nobody likes but her, but which best describes when she knows "a story's come alive" and she has characters who "can hurt me with their failings, longings, and loss."
Michael Parker sees his story "Deep Eddy" (O. Henry) as a "flash fiction" or "short story."  Thus genre initiated the story, but because short shorts are often like prose poems, it is the music of the words "Deep Eddy," that he says "spawned the story."  He creates a brackish backwoods river tainted by legend and sacred to teenagers because it is off-limits, said to be haunted or cursed.  He says he dropped the boy and girl into the bottomless swirl of the water and then found other images (and this is indeed a story of images) to "convey what every story I know worth reading is, on some level, about: the sweet, desperate, and inevitable currents of desire.
A Note on Desire
Parker's comment about "desire" being the source of stories may come from Robert Olen Butler's frequently cited suggestion, in his book From Where You Dream. Butler says that yearning seems to be at the very center of fiction as an art form, citing Buddhist thought that human beings cannot exist for even thirty seconds without desiring something. He says yearning is reflected in one of the most fundamental craft points in fiction: plot. "Because plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted." Butler says, "if there is a unified field theory of yearning in fiction it is: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe."
In the Nov. 2, 2014, issue of the Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin reviewed Denis Johnson's new novel The Laughing Monsters. He also cited some of the email conversation he had with Johnson. Ulin says Johnson sees literature as a way of framing or reckoning with the chaos of a universe we can never understand. 
Johnson: "I can't remember very many situations where I had even the tiniest idea of what the heck was going on." Johnson says from time to time he seizes on a philosophy or perspective that helps him hide his bewilderment for a tie before it falls apart and leaves him baffled again. He is now reading Zen Buddhism:  According to Buddhism, he says, "Unsatisfied desire is life's bedrock experience."
Parts of Novels
Some stories are parts of novels or beginnings of novels. Halina Duraj says "Fatherland" (O. Henry) actually resulted from his being asked to give a reading, and wanting to read from a novel he was working on, he could not find a section that would stand alone.  Consequently, he chose a few short sections and then others that would provide context, which then seemed to call for still other sections.  Thus, the story is a "distillation" from the novel Duraj was working on.
Although it clearly stated in the book that  the O. Henry Prize Stories will not consider stories that are sections of novels, Tessa Hadley says right up front that "Valentine" is an excerpt from her novel Cover Girl, although, she says the novel was written "very deliberately" as a series of episodes that could stand alone like short stories. Hadley says this corresponds to something she feels about experience in time. "We like to think of our experiences as having the overarching shape and drive of a novel, but actually life more usually happens in fragments and stretches—when change comes it's often as if we start off on a completely new narrative track, forgetting our former selves."
Dylan Landis' "Trust" is a section from her novel, Rainey Royal, which was published by Soho Press in September, 2014. The book description on Amazon promotes the book by noting that Landis won a 2014 O. Henry Prize for "a section of this novel." So, what's the answer?  Does the O. Henry Prize editor "consider" sections of novels or does it not?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Where Do Stories Come From?: Best American Short Stories, 2014; O. Henry Prize Stories, 2014

One of the most frequently asked questions at short story readings is: "Where did that story come from?" or "How did you get the idea for that story?" It's a perfectly legitimate question.  Indeed, what other question can readers ask a writer about a story?  Questions such as, "What does that story mean" or "What is that story about? "can only be answered, however tentatively, by readers, not writers. The question usually derives from the reader's sense that a story comes from "real life," which is usually more respected than "fiction."  It often means, "O.K. I have heard your 'made-up' story; now tell me about the 'real' thing.
Because this is such an inevitable reader question, the O. Henry Prize Stories' appendix, "Writers on Their Work" and the Best American Short Stories' section "Contributor's Notes" usually focus primarily on writers talking about the source of their story. The following are the four most frequently-cited sources of the stories in both volumes.  I will talk more about the stories in the next few weeks.
Beginning with Personal Experience
Sometimes, but certainly not always, stories come from personal experience.  Louise Erdrich says that her story "Nero" (O. Henry)  was based on the fact that her grandparents really did have a dog named Nero who was always escaping from the backyard. She also says the python experience in the story was based on actual experience, as was the fact that her grandfather wrestled for prize money in small farm towns in Iowa. But personal experience does not mean anything until it is made into a story. Erdrich says she did not know what to make of Nero until one morning when she was writing this story. Erdrich suggests that in the process of writing this story, she discovered it was about "existence, inevitability, and time."
Joyce Carol Oates, the consummate "profession" writer, seems to create stories out of everything she comes across, says her story "Mastiff" (BASS)  derived from an actual experience when she and her husband went hiking in a canyon near Berkeley, California. She says the experience was so vivid and her emotions so intense, it was not difficult to write the story; she insists, however, that the story is fiction, "whatever its wellsprings in actual life."
One of the most common bits of advice often given to MFA candidates is, "Write about what you know."  But that perhaps does not always work best.  David Bradley ("You Remember the Pin Mill," O. Henry) says he started out wanting to write about what he knew—the experience of black Americans," but changed his focus when his agent suggested, "Why not write about white people." When he wrote about a couple of white guys in a rural area of Western Pennsylvania both in love with the same woman drinking beer in a pickup, a magazine ran the story with an illustration depicting both men as black.  Bradley notes, "Stereotypes and expectations apply to writers too."
Maura Stanton says her story "Oh, Shenandoah" (O. Henry)  began with a personal experience of breaking a toilet seat in the apartment she was renting in Venice. When she tried to find a replacement, she realized what an absurd quest it was to try to find a toilet seat in a city full of glass and lace and masks and marbled paper. She thought this "unromantic side" of Venice might be interesting to write about.  But this was just an anecdote, not a story.  It was only when she came up with Marie's need to make a decision about Hugo and her recollection of hearing a chorus of college students singing "Shenandoah" once in Venice that she knew what to do with Hugo. Stanton says "once my invented world got untethered from the real world and started obeying its own laws," she was able to find the toilet seat; that is, she was able to discover what the story was about.
O.A. Lindsey, whose story "Evie M" (BASS) derives from his combat experience during Operation Desert Storm, says the gist of the story is a nontraditional soldier facing "postwar pinpricks and the anxiety related to each."
Will Mackin's story "Kattekoppen" (BASS) also stems from military (Navy) experience, this time in Afghanistan, in which he felt he never quite got his bearings and that every day was an exercise in crisis management.
Beginning with a Concept
It has always been my opinion that good short stories are usually about universal mysteries of human experience.  Although this means that a short story is more often focused on theme than merely on plot or character, it does not necessarily mean that a short story writer begins with a theme or idea and then develops plot and character to embody that theme. Indeed, such a tactic is apt to create a static "illustration"—at its most extreme an exemplum or a story with a moral.
However, sometimes a story does begin with a concept.  For example in BASS, Charles Baxter's story "Charity" is one of a series of stories Baxter conceived on virtues and vices. Baxter had a story in last year's BASS entitled "Bravery." Both stories will appear with others in a new book due out in February 2015 entitled There's Something I Want You To Do. The interrelated stories, featuring characters that appear and reappear, are in two sections--one devoted to virtues (“Bravery,” “Loyalty,” “Chastity,” “Charity,” and “Forbearance”) and the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice,” “Gluttony,” and “Vanity”).
The problem with such an approach, as Peter Cameron ("After the Flood," BASS), observes, is, what might called, the exemplum effect. Cameron says that since he does not write short stories very much anymore, he has to give himself some assignment or problem to solve in order to "jump-start" a story, hoping that such a "forced inception" won't weaken the story, that the story will "transcend its deliberateness."
Molly McNett says her story "La Pulchra Nota" (BASS)  began as a contemporary story about a high school choir director falling in love with his student's beautiful voice, but then she found a text on singing that mentioned the theory of la pulchra nota, about teaching from the perfect note by Medieval music theorist Jerome of Moravia. Her story  began to come together when she decided to put the story in that era. Then she came across a story of a man who lost his whole family in a month and still maintained his faith and trust in God.  She says she wanted her voice teacher to have that kind of faith though she can't claim to share or fully understand it.
Nell Freudenberger's story "Hover" (BASS) began with the notion of a mother who could fly---not like superwoman, but rather  sort of  a gentle lift off the ground to hover in an awkward, unplanned, useless sort of way.
Chinelo Okparanta says her story "Fairness" (O. Henry) began with wanting to explore an issue she observed in women in East and Southeast Asia of women of a certain class wanting to keep their skin color light.  The issue she explored, she says, however, was about loyalty and betrayal across social strata, not about skin bleaching. 
Beginning with an Obsession
Some stories begin with an obsession, either a general obsessive focus of the writer or a particular event or observation that haunts the writer.
Allison Alsup ("Old Houses," O. Henry) tells about learning of an unsolved double murder of a wife and daughter in her neighborhood when she was a child. She was friends with a girl who lived in the house of the suspected murderer, a teenage boy. She and the girl thought the house was haunted. She says she was never able to reconcile that violence with the peacefulness of her street and felt compelled to write the story "in order to discover its potential significance."  "Writers are negotiators," says Alsup, "hashing out ideas until seemingly opposite camps can sit at the same table and come to some sort of understanding."
Craig Davidson ("Medium Tough," BASS) says he is always interested in characters who are physically and emotionally broken; he says he likes characters who keep on trucking despite what life throws at them. He says he is not sure why he is drawn to such characters, although he thinks perhaps a therapist could.
Kristen Iskandrian  says "The Inheritors," (O. Henry) revolves around some of her pet obsessions, the most fundamental of which is the "multilayered entity of the female friends, and wanted the "fumbling bloom of a relationship" be the story's "pulse." She chose a consignment store as the primary setting because she likes the "sentimental mess of things disowned and things reclaimed, an orphanage for objects."  In such a place, she says her characters reveal their disparate desires and "inscribe one another."
Beginning with an Image
Often stories begin with an image. Olivia Clare ("Petur," O. Henry) says that when she lived in Iceland in 2010 for a short time, she saw the land covered with ash from the eruption of a volcano and imagined "a preternatural mother venturing out into an eerie scrim of ash"; almost before realizing what had happened, she imagined the woman meeting someone.
David Gates says his story "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" (BASS) began with an image--not one he remembered, but rather one a friend remembered of seeing Gates playing mandolin in a coffeehouse in New Haven when he was a high school kid. He says he recalls a fellow student at Bard College with a TR-6, and the death of the mandolin play in the story shares some details of the death of his father. He once kept chickens and he is a student of nineteenth-century British novels.  Thus the story is a patchwork of many different things that seem to "come together" meaningfully.
Dylan Landis ("Trust," O. Henry)  says it was an image of a teenager sneaking though her father's filing cabinet that sparked the story of Rainey Royal digging around and spotting her hated middle name on her birth certificate—a "fishhook that snags everything she finds unlovable in herself. The second image—which Landis says surprised her--was a gun tucked between file folders. Landis says she believes if you "root in the basement of the mind and grasp and object in the muck, your subconscious put it there for a reason." Landis says that as she wrote the story she had no idea how it would end, noting, "With every story I write, I like finding my endings in the muck of the basement too." 
Mark Haddon  ("The Gun," O. Henry) says "Good stories seem to come from some weird zone it's impossible to access in retrospect. "After all," he says, "if we knew how they came into being they'd be a damn sight easier to write."  He says he only knows he had been "haunted" for a long time by the image of two boys pushing a pram containing a dead deer across the highway several miles from where he lives. He says he has no idea where the image came from, only that it had a particular charge and stuck with him. Haddon says the story contains several elements that keep cropping up in his writing, including a locale that might be described as "grubby, liminal, unloved places that are neither town nor country, whose ownership is dubious and that are never en route to anywhere," but, he adds, that might "just be portals to somewhere else altogether."
Stephen O'Connor says "Next to Noting" (BASS) would not have been written if it were not for Hurricane Irene. However, he says the "real inspiration" for the story was an image that just popped into his head of two sisters with black pageboy haircuts and eyes pale blue like the moon. When he started developing the image, he realized that wo sisters were entirely lacking in "fellow feeling," and consummately rational. When he realized that this seemed parallel with nature, he knew he would have the two women face Hurricane Irene—all of which became a means by which he could explore his longtime notion that although he is an atheist there are certain things he wants to believe that cannot be sustained by rational interpretation.
All of the Above
Of course, most stories combine all four of these "sources," as the writer engages in a dynamic process of discovery "about" something mysteriously human. The story's relationship to "real life" is usually more complex than the question  about where the story comes from assumes and can only be discovered by the reader's engaging in a close reading of the fictional life of the story.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Poe's Stories of Dream and Reality: "Descent into the Maelstrom" and "Pit and the Pendulum"

Today is Halloween, and I can't resist a post about my favorite writer of "alternate reality" short stories, Edgar Allan Poe, who has not always been taken as seriously as he should be. Sometimes dismissed, at best, as a creator of creepy potboilers, or at worst, as a drunk and a child molester, Poe has been sneered at by many critics, even as he has been hailed as an inspiration by many fiction writers.
Edgar Allan Poe was interested in all human experiences which challenged or undermined the easy assumption that everyday reality was the only reality worth attending to.  Although some readers may think that this preference for alternate realms of experience was part of his psychological makeup, it is much more likely that it grew out of his acceptance of the German romantic tradition of short fiction as a vehicle for presenting experiences that break up the ordinary.
One of the most common such "alternate" experiences, of course, one that is accessible to every human being, is the experience of dream.  However, Poe was not only interested in presenting dreams as if they were reality, he was also interested, as was typical of the Blackwood fiction of the day, in presenting experiences that were so extreme that they seemed to have the nightmarish quality of dream.  To present dream as reality and reality as dream was, for Poe, to blur the lines between the two forms of experience.  It was to give the human construct of a dream the hard feel of the external world and to give the seemingly hard contours of the external world a sense of being a human construct. 
Two of Poe's best-known stories which blur this dream/reality distinction are "Descent into the Maelstrom" (May 1841) and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842).  Both present characters placed in an extreme situation; however, the situations differ in a crucial way.  In the first the extreme situation is a natural phenomenon, in spite of the fact that by its extremity it seems unnatural. It is a favorite Poe technique to create the extreme situation by pushing the ordinary situation to extraordinary lengths, to suggest the supernatural by pushing the natural to extremes. 
In the second story, the ontological status of the situation is ambiguous, for although  the character knows physically where he is, he does not know psychically what state he is in.  The stories also differ in terms of what motivates the extreme state.  In "A Descent into the Maelstrom," Poe devotes most of the story to setting up the situation, normalizing it, locating it in space; once the situation is established the story is almost over.  In "The Pit and the Pendulum," how the character got to his present situation is left vague; a great deal of the story is spent considering whether he is in is a dream or a waking state.  However, the means by which the two characters cope with their situations is similar; both make use of careful and lucid observation to try to escape their fate.
"Descent into the Maelstrom" begins in the typical Blackwood magazine manner by presenting a character who has undergone an "event" which has never happened to a human being before and who needs, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, to tell about it.  Moreover, Poe follows the device common to romantic dramatic lyric poetry of having the narrator tell the story while located the self at that point where the events of the story took place, informing his wedding-guest-like auditor: "I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned--and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye."  However, the teller also makes use of the eighteenth-century technique of verisimilitude, using a "particularizing manner" to give  precise details of the physical phenomenon he is describing.  The listener adds to this particularizing technique of authenticating the event by quoting from written sources such as Rasmus and the Encyclopedia Britannica, but asserts that no matter how "circumstantial" or detailed the descriptions are, they fall short of conveying the horror, the magnificence, or the "sense of the novel" which the scene of the whirlpool elicits, noting, however, that he is not sure from what "point of view" previous commentators viewed the whirlpool.  It is this notion of point of view that motivates the story, for, as the teller has said at the beginning, no one has had the viewpoint he has had--the typical romantic perspective from within rather than from without.
The storyteller presents himself as an inadequate teller, for he often claims the inability of his words to capture the event; he says it is "folly to attempt describing" the hurricane which hits, and when he knows he is close to the whirlpool, he says, "no one will know what my feelings were at that moment".  However, if his feelings of horror are indescribable, his feelings when he loses his sense of horror are calm and logical.  Indeed, when he makes up his mind to hope no more, he becomes composed and begins to reflect on how magnificent it would be to die in this manifestation of God's power, becoming obsessed with the "keenest curiosity."
It is precisely this obsession to observe which saves the narrator.  The nearer he comes to the bottom of the whirlpool, the keener grows what he calls his "unnatural curiosity."  It is a combination of memory and observation of the geometric shapes which are less apt to be drawn down in the whirlpool that marks the means of his escape.  Lashing himself to a cylinder-shaped barrel, he throws himself off the fishing boat into the whirlpool and hovers half-way between the top and the bottom, between chaos below and salvation above, until the whirlpool--which is, after all, limited in time, subsides.  At this point, the teller ends his tale by  moving from the past to the present-tense, reflecting on the tale itself, becoming transformed by the experience from participant to manipulator of his own discourse, for he says his companions on shore "knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land."
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is much more ambiguous about the epistemological or ontological state of the extreme situation than "A Descent into the Maelstrom."  Although the entire story takes place inside a prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story's only visible character, has been thrown, the story does not indicate what the nameless narrator has done to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition responsible for his imprisonment.  It simply recounts, in excruciatingly exact detail, the step-by-step means by which the torturers try to break the protagonist's spirit and his own methodical attempts to escape each new horror that they put in his path.
Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" only focuses on one character, the reader actually discovers very little about him.  We do not know his name, what he has done, whether he is guilty, whether he is a criminal, what he misses about life in the everyday world--in short, we know none of those things about the character that we might expect to learn if this were a novel in which a man spends several years in prison.  Although such a lack of knowledge would make readers quickly lose interest if they were reading a novel, it is indeed all that it is necessary to know to become involved with Poe's short story.  For this is not a realistic story of an individual human character caught in an unjust social system, but rather a nightmarish, symbolic story about every person's worst nightmare and an allegory of the most basic human situation and dilemma.  Harry Levine has described the story as such an allegory, and David Hirsch has further argued that the character's situation embodies the modern existential experience:  "the surface of Poe's world has broken and cracked, and man stands at the edge of the bottomless abyss."
The story is a Poe paradigm.  Focusing on a character under sentence of death and aware of it, it moves the character into a concrete dilemma which seems to "stand for" a metaphysical situation in an ambiguous way that suggests its "dreamy," "indeterminate" nature.  In this story we find the most explicit statement in Poe's fiction of his sense of the blurry line between dream and reality.   The narrator considers that although when we awake even from the soundest sleep, "we break the gossamer web of some dream," the web is so flimsy that a second later we forget we have dreamed at all.  However, sometimes, perhaps much later, memories of the details of the dream come back and we do not know where they have come from.  This sense of having a memory of that which did not in fact occur is central to the story's ambiguity, for as the narrator tries to remember his experience, it is not clear whether the memory is of a real event or a dream event that has been forgotten.
He does not know in what state he is; the only thing he does know is that he is not dead, for he says "Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence;--but where and in what state was I?"  The narrator's task is simply to save himself, but in order to survive he must know where he is, and the first crucial task he undertakes is to try to orient himself.  However, his efforts are complicated by his moving back and forth between sleep and waking; each time he falls asleep, he must reorient himself all over again.  This explains why even after trying to demarcate his position, he awakes and, instead of going on forward, retraces his steps and thus overestimates the size of his cell.
Like the protagonist in "A Descent into the Maelstrom," he is preoccupied with curiosity about the mere physical nature of his surroundings, taking a "wild interest in trifles."  However, in spite of his deliberative efforts, it is the accident of tripping that saves him from the pit the first time.  Waking from another interlude of sleep, he is bound down, and this time above him is a picture of time, synonymous with death, carrying not the image of a scythe, but rather an actual pendulum which sweeps back and forth.  In this situation, surrounded by the repulsive rats, with the scythe of time and thus death over his head, he again moves back and forth between the states of sensibility and insensibility. 

This pattern of moving in and out of consciousness is typical of Poe, for in such an alternating state, consciousness has some of the characteristics of unconsciousness and vice versa; one state is imbued with the qualities of the other state.  As a result, Poe's stories are neither solely like the consciousness of realism, nor the projective unconsciousness of romance.  As the narrator totters on the brink of the pit, the walls rush back and an outstretched arm catches him as he falls.  The ending is not an ending at all, but rather the beginning of waking life, the movement from the gossamer dream or nightmare which constitutes the story itself.       

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Happy Halloween! Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows"

            Happy Halloween to all those who treasure that holiday. It has always been my younger daughter's favorite holiday. This morning when I went to her house to pick something up, I made my way to the door through a yard peppered with ghastly hands sticking out of the ground, a coffin near the steps, and a female skeleton lounging seductively on the porch. My 3-year old grandaughter loves it as much as her mother does.
            I usually try to post something relevant to the spooky holiday each year.  This year, since I am working on a history of the British Short Story, and since "weird" tales are a hallmark of the mid to late nineteenth century in England,  I thought I would post an excerpt on Algernon Blackwood from my book in progress.  If you have not read "The Willows," you might find it just the thing to give you chills on this haunted holiday.
            In her Introduction to the 2014 Best American Short Stories, Jennifer Egan says the single factor that made her decide which stories to include in the volume was its basic power to make her lose her bearings, "to envelop me in a fictional world." This is the basis of the magic of that archetypal story collection, 1001 Nights, for as you read those stories that contain stories within stories, you move farther and farther away from any sense of phenomental reality and  more and more into a purely fictional construct—what might be called the 1001 Nights, in which you move farther and farther away from phenomenal reality and more and more into the world of story.
            Actually, it might make more sense to call everyday reality a fictional construct, merely an assumption that novelists more often than not take as the only real.  For the short-story writer, revelation reality is true reality, just as for primitive man, sacred reality was the only reality, and profane reality was just an illusion that merely made everyday experience possible.            
            In a letter written late in his life to Peter Penzoldt (author of the 1952 study, The Supernatural in Fiction), Algernon Blackwood, British writer famous for his "weird" stories,  insisted that his primary concern was not with the ghost story but stories of extended consciousness. "My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty." 
            H. P. Lovecraft has called "The Willows" the foremost Blackwood tale, an opinion with which many critics of the supernatural story agree. And indeed it is a story that seems typical of Blackwood's thematic structure of having an average man, through a "flash of terror or beauty," experience something beyond the sensory reality of the everyday. The ambiguity, as is usually the case in nineteenth-century short fiction, results from being unable to decide if the experience actually occurs in the world of the story or whether the events are hallucinated by the character.  Such a question about reality in fiction is only troublesome when one takes the story as the mimetic presentation of a phenomenal event, rather than taking the story's fictionality as its true subject.
            The tension between external and internal reality in "The Willows" is embodied as a tension between "place as symbol" and "mind as style"; what is most strongly foregrounded is the "world of willows" as a place that has become animated and significant and the narrator's obsessive mental response to it. Although the events of the story could have taken less than half its 18,000-word length to recount, the primary action of the story consists of the characters thinking about the situation; the effect of the mysterious place is repeated over and over again obsessively.
            "The Willows" is one long process of personification which begins with the animistic sense that the Danube river itself is a "Great Personage" and the impression that the wind in the willows makes the entire plain moving and thus alive.  Skimming down the flooded river in a canoe, the narrator and his companion, the practical-minded Swede, abruptly enter into what the narrator perceives as a new realm, "a land of desolation," "a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic," into which they have trespassed; the narrator begins to feel some essence from the willows completely alien to the human.
         The mysterious mental experience begins with two events in the real world, events, however, fraught with initial misapprehension.  At first, the two see a man's body bobbing up and down in the water, which they then laughingly recognize as an otter.  Almost immediately, they see a man in a boat making signs to them, including the sign of the Cross, an event the Swede accounts for by the peasant's misapprehension that he probably thought the two were spirits.  These two experiences are referred to as real, distinct events, unusual in such a place, but events nonetheless.  At this point begins the narrator's obsessive reflection on the place, and he feels glad that the Swede is a practical and unimaginative man.  However, as the story progresses, the Swede regularly puts into words what the narrator is thinking and feeling.
            The first manifestation of the animated life of the place occurs at night when the narrator sees huge figures moving across the tops of the willows, which he hopes will resolve themselves into an optical illusion.  "I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standards of reality had changed."  He knows the figures are real, but not real according to the standards of the camera and the biologist.  His first response is that they are the personified forces of the place itself, and he recalls stories and legends of such primitive animistic beliefs.  However, he continues to reason that the moonlight and branches have created the pictures of the figures of the imagination and that he has projected them outwards to make them appear objective, to create a vivid hallucination.
            The external world seems to alter even more, as naturally the river floods higher to make the island smaller, and supernaturally the willows seem to move closer to the tent to create a sense of suffocation.  Moreover, a change begins to take place internally in the minds of both the characters; without having to talk about it, both are aware of the ominousness of the place as if both consciousness have become merged.  The dialogue between the two suggests a mind wrestling with itself, as the narrator tries to find explanations for everything the Swede articulates.  The loss of one of the oars and the tear in the canoe are real manifestations, but the cause of the events is made ambiguous by the narrator's suspicion that the Swede has gone insane or has conspired with the mysterious forces. Both men independently come to the conclusion that the attack from the place will come through their minds, and the Swede urges them not to talk about it, because "what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens."                 
            However, they do talk about it, with the Swede flinging sentences into the emptiness which corroborate the thoughts of the narrator, sentences so fragmented and inconsequential as to suggest that the main line of the Swede's thought are secret to himself and the fragments he found it impossible to digest.  The Swede voices the thoughts of both men by saying that they have strayed out of a safe line into a spot where the veil between their realm of three-dimensional reality and a fourth dimension had been worn thin--a trespass which would cost them their lives by a mental rather than a physical process. In that sense, says the Swede, and thinks the narrator, they would be "victims of our own adventure--a sacrifice."
            This is probably the key phrase in the story, for indeed, "The Willows" is about the process of characters becoming victims of their own adventure--which they characterize as either a personification of the elements or as a trespass on some ancient shrine.  In either case, the place is one of spirit, in terms of fictional reality, a place of atmosphere.  "The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect--as it existed across the border of that other region."
            This unearthly order of experience is the order of fictional reality itself, an order of reality that the characters have entered into in much the same way that both the fairy tale and the early nineteenth-century German novelle presents characters from the external world entering into a dream-like or purely subjective world which seems both of the artist's making and at the same time a projection of the mental processes of the characters themselves.   The willows exist within the world of the story as created by the author, but also seem projections of the characters.  As the Swede says, "Above all, don't think, for what you think happens!" 
            The unified consciousness of the two persists until the narrator saves the Swede from throwing himself into the water and they find a corpse which the Swede says is a victim that the forces have wanted.  In the conclusion of the story, as the corpse is released from the willow roots and floats away out of sight, it turns "over and over on the waves like an otter."  With this "real event," the story concludes by returning on itself to the opening event that began the adventure.  
            The basic problem in reading such a story as this is to determine whether the events take place in a realm of reality other than the natural world or whether all is a function of hallucination. Such a problem must be dealt with in the short story by understanding the story as constituting a fictional realm in itself wherein the natural world has already been transformed by the symbolic power of the author's imagination and wherein there are no multiple human consciousness, but rather only the single consciousness of the maker of the experience.
            In "The Willows" the narrator both makes the story and experiences it. This is not the same as saying that this is a story about hallucination within the action, but rather that the entire story is an hallucination in which the imagination is projected both on the external world and on the minds of the characters.  What Blackwood thinks does exist is a projection of the imagination itself.  We come to the story, just as the characters come to the island, with the willows already transformed by Blackwood into symbols.  Inside the tale, the narrator sustains the plot by "thinking" the thoughts the Swede expresses and thinking into existence the actions of the mysterious willows.  The story ends when a "real event" outside the thought processes of the narrator occurs and breaks up the projected illusion of the story itself.    

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Best American Short Stories: 2014 and O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014--Some Preliminary Remarks

Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best American Short Stories, who reads hundreds of short stories each year to pick the 120 she considers the "Best," says she has moments when it seems there are more people in the U.S. who want to write stories than there who want to read them. She acknowledges what I have noted in this blog before—that many of the people who buy the annual Best American Short Stories (and the same is true for The O. Henry Prize Stories) are "writers in training," figuring that if they read the best fiction in the country, they will learn how to write better fiction. But Pitlor ponders "What happens when writing becomes more attractive than reading?  Will we become—or are we already—a nation of performers with no audience?"
Pitlor urges that editors, writers, teachers, publishers do whatever possible to enliven readers, to create communities for them, and by this, I don't think she means "book clubs." I share Pitlor's concern. But quite frankly I don't know what to do about it. Good short stories are not always "easy" to read; you certainly can't skim them or read them only for plot. The fact of the matter is, short stories are more appreciated by other writers than they are by non-writers. My experience last month when the Wall Street Journal made Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman their book club selection reminded me that most readers have no patience with, and therefore little appreciation for, short stories, even those by Nobel Laureate Alice Munro.
The reason that writers are the most appreciative readers of short stories can be seen in Francine Prose's 2006 book, Reading Like A Writer. Prose says, "I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made."  She says her high school English teacher had recently graduated from a college where his own English professors taught the New Criticism, adding, "Luckily for me, that approach to literature was still in fashion when I graduated and went on to college."
However when she went to graduate school, Prose says she realized that her love of books was not shared by her classmates and professors; in fact, she found it hard to understand what they did love, for the warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminism, etc. were all teaching students they were reading "texts" in which ideas and politics, not the work itself, were what was important. Prose believes that a close-reading course should be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop., I suspect that most writers agree with her. However, most readers are just not the close readers that writers are; and in my opinion, to appreciate good short stories, you must be a close reader..
I attended undergraduate school from 1960 to 1963 and graduate school from 1963 to 1966, so I too was schooled in the "New Criticism" that valued "close reading." After I began teaching in 1966, I schooled myself on structuralism and deconstruction during the 1970's and 1980's.  Indeed, I created the first theory of literature course in my department, but I never relinquished close reading.  In the 1990's, when "theory" became associated with cultural criticism, postcolonial criticism, and political correctness, moving even further away from attending to the work of fiction itself, I was glad I was near retirement. In the last year I taught, my graduate students actually resented my insistence that they pay close attention to the work they were reading; they preferred to talk about social issues and politics. The only students who paid any attention to style, language, metaphor, structure, and craft were those interested in becoming fiction writers themselves.
I have just finished reading this year's O. Henry Award Stories and am now reading the 2014 Best American Short Story volume. Over the years the two books have adopted two quite different selection conventions. After Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best, has chosen 120 stories she thinks best, she sends them to a guest author/editor to pick the top 20 that will appear in the book. However, Lucy Furman, editor of the O. Henry volume is solely responsible for choosing the 20 stories that appear in that book.  She then sends those 20 (with no identification of author or place of publication) to three guest author/readers, who pick their single favorite story and then write a brief essay on their choice.  This year the three "jurors" are:
Tash Aw, a Malaysian author whose first novel The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread and the Commonwealth Writers prizes for best first novel. He had a short story in last year's O. Henry Prize Stories.
James Lasdun, a transplanted British writer now living in America, author of three collections of short stories, the most recent It's Beginning to Hurt.  I have posted blog essays on Lasdun's stories in the past.
Joan Silber, an American writer whose collection of story Ideas of Heaven was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Story Prize. She has had three stories in past O. Henry Prize Stories.
Although these three authors are called "jurors," as far as I can tell, they have nothing to do with choosing the 20 stories; they just pick out and write a short piece on their favorite one.
This year, the single guest judge who chose the final 20 in Best American, is Jennifer Egan, whose collection of linked stories, loosely parading as a novel, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book prize.
In her brief introduction, Eagan argues that  Best American Short Stories "generates excitement around the practice of writing fiction, celebrates the short story form, and energizes the fragile ecosystem of magazines that sustain it."
In her longer and more detailed introduction, Lucy Furman says that the mission of the O. Henry Prize Stories since its beginning in 1919 has been to "encourage the art of the short story.  By calling attention to their gifts, we encourage short-story writers.  When we put a story between book covers, we give it a longer life and a wider readership." Furman talks a bit about what Eagan calls the "fragile ecosystem" of magazines that sustain the short story form, lamenting that those magazines funded by public and private academic intuitions are always in peril from shrinking budgets, for those in charge of  campus money doubt that a small magazine can be as much benefit to a university as a winning football team.
Eagan says one of the primary reasons she agreed to serve as guest editor this year is that she wanted to explore "systematically" what makes a short story great—"to identify my own aesthetic standards in a more rigorous way than I've done before."  Eagan says she wants to put her biases on the table at the outset, noting first of all that she does not care very much about "genre," either as a reader of a writer. She says he does not think about short stories any differently than she does about novels or novellas or even memoirs. However, she does admit that the distillation process, which she says must take place in any narrative, has to be more extreme than in a novel. "It also must be purer; there is almost no room for mistakes."
Eagan says she is biased toward writers who take risks—formally, structurally, even in terms of subject matter—over those who do the familiar thing even exquisitely. If there is a single factor that governed her choice of stories to include, she says, it was "the basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world" by means of vivid specific language. After a compelling premise and distinctive language, she says the next factor is the story's pushing past obvious possibilities into something that felt "mysterious" or "extreme."
A few more general observations about the selections in the two books before focusing on specific stories in subsequent blog posts over the next few weeks:  If you follow the short story at all, you will see more familiar names on the table of contents of Best than the O. Henry: e.g. Charles Baxter, Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle, Peter Cameron, Joshua Ferris, Nell Freudenberger, David Gates, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Joyce Carol Oates, and Karen Russell. It is no surprise then that more stories in the Best collection were originally published in the more successful periodicals: five from the New Yorker, ten from McSweeney's, Granta, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Zoetrope, and Glimmer Train
The O. Henry  collection has three New Yorker stories—by the three best-known writers in the collection: Louise Erdrich, William Trevor, and Tessa Hadley (who is always in the New Yorker). Most of the O. Henry stories are from such places as The American Reader, Ecotone, New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, Threepenny Review, Subtropics, Southwest Review, New England Review, and Southern Review—all prestigious places that any MFA student would love to appear in—even if the readership is less and the money negligible or nil.
Unless you read a great deal in small press periodicals, you may not know many of the writers in the O. Henry collection, e.g. Allison Alsup, Chanelle Benz, Olivia Clare, Halina Duraj, Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, Kristen Iskandrian, Dylan Landis, Colleen Morrissey, Robert Anthony Siegel, Kristen Valdez Quade, and Maura Stanton. No one story appears in both collections, although Laura van den Berg, a relative beginner, has stories in both.
I will finish reading all the stories—more than once--in both volumes before I begin posting essays on particular stories.  If you have not purchased your own copies of Best American Short Stories 2014 and O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014, you can pick up both either in paperback or eBook versions for around twenty bucks.  That's about 50 cents per story--the best bargain in publishing for those who love good fiction (And you have a much better chance of finding good writing in short stories than in novels; ask any writer.). 
It's too damn bad that practically nobody reviews these two books—just another example of the short shrift the short story gets from the publishing industry.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Scheherazade": Sex and Storytelling

Well, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been announced, and favorite Haruki Murakami did not win.  French author Patrick Modiano, not well known in the U.S., did.  Congratulations to him.

Murakami has a new short story in the recent New Yorker (Oct. 13, 2014), the title of which, "Scheherazade," immediately attracted my attention, having recently read the new translation of 1001 Nights by Hanan Al-Shakyh and Marina Warner's wonderful study, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.

Murakami's story is about a guy who cannot, for some undisclosed reason, leave his house. A nameless woman is assigned (but we do not know by whom) to come to his house regularly to bring him food and supplies. She also has sex with him and tells him stories; thus, he calls her Scheherazade. The main story she tells him in the story we are reading is about her breaking into the home of a boy with whom she was obsessed while in high school, (she is middle-aged now), fantasizing about him, stealing trivial items, and leaving other items in their place.

Because the story provides no background for why the man cannot leave the house or who is responsible for sending the woman to attend to his needs, the reader is apt to focus on these mysteries.  Indeed, New Yorker editor Treisman begins her interview in her weekly online feature by asking Murakami if he knows why the man cannot leave the house.

If this were the account of an actual event or even a realistic story, the question might be legitimate.  However, since Murakami does not reveal in the story why the man is confined to the house, he can quite rightfully reply to Treisman: "I don't know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation." Murakami says what caused the man's situation is not important. A fan of Kafka, he might have said it is no more relevant to the story than why Joseph K in Kafka's The Trial is arrested; it just is a given of the story that makes the story possible. In some ways, we are all locked in.

Treisman also asks Murakami why he ends his story without letting the reader hear the end of the story Scheherazade is telling the man.  Murakami says this is one of the most basic techniques of storytelling since the beginning of storytelling.  Many of the stories in 1001 Nights end only as an introit to another story within a story until the reader gets drawn so far into stories within stories that reality (whatever that is) is left so far behind one wonders if such a thing ever existed.  But readers want realism and closure, some contact with what they think is the "real world," as if their notion of "reality" is the only notion possible. This desire for closure even leads Treisman to ask Murakami if there will be a sequel--a device that Hollywood movie makers use to satisfy audiences' need for the illusion that that stuff on the screen keeps on happening even after they leave the theater.

I have only found one reader on the Internet who has read the story and commented on it—the indefatigable Betsy Pelz over on the Mookseandgripes.com website—a valuable site I have read with pleasure the past several years.  And sure enough, Ms. Pelz spends much of her discussion pondering what the guy is doing confined in the room and who is sending that woman over to tend to his needs.

Is the man a criminal, a political prisoner? She asks. Is the woman a prostitute, a sex surrogate? How does the woman manage the very practical matter of getting over to the guy's house so regularly without disrupting her own marriage? Ms. Pelz even suggests that the woman might be hired by the mob to keep the man prisoner. Frustrated by finding no answers, Ms. Polz develops her own fantasy solution that the man is actually the young boy the woman had an obsession about when she was a teenager—that he is actually now her husband and they are playing some sexual fantasy game by which she keeps him interested in her even though she is no longer young.

Perhaps concerned that  such a reading might trivialize the story as just an old Ladies Home Journal "Can this Marriage Be Saved?" piece, Ms. Pelz also suggests that the story has a social context, claiming, "The story addresses the kind of challenge a man faces in highly gendered societies such as Japan, where this story takes place and where the ideal for men is to be strong and silent."

I am not particularly attacking Betsy Pelz's reading of this story. She certainly has the freedom to read it any way she wishes. I suspect that most readers will have the same reaction to Murakami's "Scheherazade," especially if they are not as familiar with the history of storytelling beginning with 1001 Nights as Murakami is.  Indeed, Treisman's questions in the Murakami interview suggest that she is anticipating the typical reader response of trying to "normalize" this story, ground it in "realistic" motivation and "social" context.

But as Murakami's coy responses that he does not know what brought about the situation the man is in and his acknowledgement that he is using one of the most basic techniques of storytelling "handed down the millennia" suggest that "Scheherazade" is a story that can only be understood within the context of storytelling.

"Scheherazade" begins with an acknowledgement that this is a story about the ambiguous world that story creates: "Habara didn't know whether her stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented.  He had no way of telling.  Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives."   Stories that begin with some variation of "Once there was a man who…" often end with the reader asking the teller, "Did that really happen?"  My children often would ask me after I told  them a story, "Is that really true, Daddy, or just a story?"

Murakami's narrator says that regardless of whether Scheherazade's stories were true or not, she had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart, stories that left the listener enthralled," able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment."  Indeed, this is one of the primary effects of reading 1001 Nights.

The man in the story is puzzled by the fact that "their lovemaking and her storytelling were so closely linked, making it hard to tell where one ended and the other began." He has never experienced anything like this.  He is tightly bound to her, but he does not know why, for the sex is so-so and he doesn’t love her.  Indeed, the woman performs each sexual act as if completing an assignment in a businesslike manner.  Although their sex is not obligatory, it could not be said that their hearts are in it. Although the sex is not entirely businesslike, it is not passionate either.

Much of "Scheherazade" deals with the story the woman tells the man about her breaking into the house of the boy she was infatuated with while in high school.  She goes to his house when no one is at home and goes up to his room, sitting in his desk chair, picking up objects he has touched: "the most mundane objects became somehow radiant because they were his." She describes herself as a "Love Thief," feeling that if she takes something, she must also leave something. It is a reminder of the inextricable connection between story and sex that she takes one of the boy's pencils and leaves one of her tampons. She scribbles things in her notebook with the pencil, smells it, kisses it, even puts it in her mouth and sucks on it.  

She creates such a fantasy world that it no longer bothers her that in "the real world" the boy doesn't even seem to be aware of her existence. Murakami is exploring one of the most powerful aspects of love and sexual obsession that runs throughout 1001 Nights—that it is not the "real world" that matters—not even the "real" physical body of the other—only the powerful obsession that creates an alternate world. The fact that pornography focuses on physical events is what makes it so boring.

She continues to make trips to the boy's house, leaving strands of her hair, but also leaving the tampon, which the boy has never found because it was her first "token."  Leaving "tokens" is very common in the 1001 Nights stories; simple objects become transformed into magical emblems of the obsession that drives the story. Marina Warner talks a great deal about the importance of magical objects or tokens in her study Stranger Magic. All storytellers are aware of the metamorphosis of simple objects into sacred metaphoric ones. I have mentioned before Raymond Carver's comment about how ordinary objects become transformed in short stories.

A shift takes place after the girl takes one of the boy's soiled t-shirts from the laundry hamper and the mother discovers that someone has been breaking in the house and changes the door locks.  The girl does not need the boy, only the token of the shirt. When she puts her nose into the armpits and inhales, it is a as though she is in his embrace.  This "as if" is, of course, a key element of all storytelling. After she tells the man about the t-shirt, she asks to have sex with him one more time, and this time, instead of it being businesslike, it is violent, passionate and drawn out, and her climax is unmistakable.  Indeed, when she is having sex with the man this time, she is in her imagination having sex with the boy, and it is this imaginative sex that is central to the story.

When the girl stops the break-ins, her passion for the boy begins to cool.  She says that although the fever was passing, what she had contracted was not something like sickness, but rather the "real thing."  If a therapist or practical realist told the girl what she has been feeling was not the real thing but only an imaginative thing, such a judgment would just reflect a misunderstanding of what passion or desire or love or sex really is--always an imaginative thing.

At the end of his story, Murakami plays the little storytelling game so common in 1001 Nights, when the woman tells the man, "To tell the truth, the story doesn't end there.  A few years later, when I was in my second year of nursing school, a strange stroke of fate brought us together again."

The man wants to hear the rest of the story (as does the reader), but fears he may never see Scheherazade again and may never have the shared intimacy of sex with her again. "What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it on the other.  That was something that Scheherazade had provided in abundance—indeed her gift was inexhaustible." Indeed, this is the gift of the storyteller, the key to the treasure.  And as John Barth's genii reminds us, "The key to treasure is the treasure."

I hope Betsy Pelz will forgive me for using her discussion as a sort of straw man to emphasize what I think is a very important point about the short story as a genre—that to understand a particular story the reader must have some understanding of the nature of story and storytelling, especially the fact that good short stories are most often about some universal aspect of human desire and that "realism" is never an adequate means by which to understand them.

I am working on my essay on "Sex and Storytelling" in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. My thanks for the timely appearance of Haruki Murakami's story "Scheherazade," which reaffirms my notions about this theme in Alice Munro's stories.